Key point 4-08 . Every state has a child abuse reporting law that requires persons designated as mandatory reporters to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Ministers are mandatory reporters in many states. Some states exempt ministers from reporting child abuse if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Ministers may face criminal and civil liability for failing to report child abuse.
A Pennsylvania court ruled that a victim of child abuse could not sue ministers who knew of the abuse but failed to report it, but he could sue the church for breaching its promise to pay his counseling bills.
A 36-year-old male (Eric) claimed that he was sexually molested by three priests some 20 years before when he was 16 years of age. He sued his former church and diocese on the basis of several theories of liability including a failure to report the abuse when it happened pursuant to the state child abuse reporting law, breach of a fiduciary duty, and negligent supervision. In addition, Eric claimed that when he informed the diocese of the abuse in 2002, he was assured by diocesan officials that the diocese would pay for psychological treatment which was not covered by insurance. However, he claimed that a year later the diocese ceased payment of these bills and instead imposed "oppressive conditions" that would have to be met for the payments to resume. These conditions required the diocese to review a clear treatment plan that would include both comprehensive psychiatric and psychological evaluation "to ensure that the recommended treatment plan is well reasoned and has a high probability of being a benefit to him."
failure to report child abuse
Eric claimed that the church and diocese were responsible for his injuries because they failed to report suspected child abuse pursuant to the state child abuse reporting law. At the time of the alleged abuse in 1980 and 1981, the reporting law did not specifically list clergy as a category of those required to report abuse. Clergy were not added to the list of mandatory reporters until the law was amended in 1995. The court refused to apply the 1995 amendment retroactively to make church and diocesan officials mandatory reporters in 1980 and 1981. It concluded that "no statute shall be construed to be retroactive unless clearly and manifestly so intended by the General Assembly." Such an intent was not present in this case.
While the diocese's promise to pay Eric's counseling bills was initially an unenforceable, oral commitment, it may have become enforceable as a result of the legal doctrine of "promissory estoppel." The doctrine of promissory estoppel "is invoked when there is no enforceable agreement between the parties" and is applied "to avoid injustice by making enforceable a promise made by one party to another, when the promisee relies on the promise, and therefore changes his position to his own detriment." The court noted that Eric began treatment in reliance upon the otherwise unconditional promise to pay, and then discontinued his treatment because the diocese failed to continue to make payments.
Application . This case is important for two reasons. First, it affirms the general view that ministers who fail to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse do not thereby expose either themselves or their employing church to civil liability unless they are mandatory reporters under the reporting law and civil liability for failing to report is imposed either by the reporting law itself or by court decisions in that state.
Second, this is one of the few courts to address the issue of counseling fees paid by a church to a victim of clergy sexual abuse. The court concluded that the church's promise to pay Eric's counseling fees was unenforceable at the time it was made, based on the principle of "consideration." It is a fundamental principle of contract law that a promise is not legally binding or enforceable unless the party making the promise receives something of value (called "consideration") in exchange. Since the diocese received nothing in exchange for its promise to pay Eric's counseling bills, its promise was unenforceable. However, there are certain exceptions to this rule, including the doctrine of promissory estoppel. As the court noted, this doctrine may make an unenforceable promise enforceable "when the promisee relies on the promise, and therefore changes his position to his own detriment." The court noted that Eric began treatment in reliance upon the otherwise unconditional promise to pay, and then discontinued his treatment because the diocese failed to continue to make payments. As a result, the church's promise to pay the counseling bills may have become enforceable. Morrison v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, 2004 WL 3141330 (Pa. Com. Pl. 2004).